Jun 072010

This morning, in dueling op-eds on AOL News, yours truly (a.k.a. Mr. Buttinsky) debated with James Taylor of the Heartland Institute about whether California should ban plastic bags. It was a hard debate to have because the answer is so obvious: we need to get rid of plastic bags, as they are one more ecological problem we don’t need (California uses 19 billion plastic bags every year!). My side of the debate focused simply on the best way to get rid of the bags, by either banning them or taxing them.

Of course, Mr. Taylor went through all the reasons why we environmentalists are just meddling busybodies, arguing that there’s no reason to ban plastic bags and pointing to their low energy use and how difficult it is to remember to bring them with you. But my favorite line is about how canvas bags will get dirty and conveying that washing them will take more energy than producing plastic:

“Reusable canvas bags are likely to become downright gross in no time. The next time you buy ice cream, notice how much of it sticks to the outside of the carton, ready to turn a canvas shopping bag into a gooey mess and a feeding station for ants and cockroaches. Notice, too, how much juice leaks from the fruit salad container and how much bacteria-infested gook leaks from meat packages.

Keeping canvas bags sanitary and reusable will require frequent additional cycles for your washer and dryer. These extra laundry cycles, of course, result in more energy use, more air pollutants from electricity generation, and more water pollution from detergents.”

This Mongoose Doesn't like its bag to get ice cream on it...

This mongoose hates ice cream stains, so it uses only plastic bags...

I wonder if his calculation includes all the energy used to drill the oil to make the bags, build the machinery, and transport the bags, not to mention the centuries it takes for plastic to break down in the environment and all the life it disrupts as it does so. But more importantly, as a regular user of a canvas grocery bag, I want to assure Mr. Taylor that I rarely have to wash them—and I often buy ice cream.

With this concern out of the way, let’s focus again on the best way to get rid of plastic bags: by banning or taxing them. Because there are people like Mr. Taylor in the world, I propose a tax, as this will minimize critics’ whining and preserve their freedom of choice (a point Michael Maniates explains very well in State of the World 2010). As the example of Washington, D.C., shows, a tax can cut plastic bag usage from 22 million to 3 million in just one month. And that, after all, is the goal: to be “buttinskies” and change how people behave so that the Earth remains healthy enough to sustain vibrant human societies.

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  9 Responses to “To Tax or To Ban–That Is the Only Question”

  1. In Ireland some years ago they solved the plastic bag litter problem by taxing plastic bags. It worked well, and I think this is the better solution.

  2. Hi Erik

    I also favour a tax, banning doesn’t work and is a vote-gathering-politicians game (popular, with no effect). On the other hand a cost (tax) will make people think and could be put to use for a good purpose. But I object to your tone and your ‘non’arguments: The debate is easy because one needs to reduce waste, and wrong use of plastic bags is a waste and mismanagement of waste is also a waste. Do not be so objectionally obnoxious to other peoples views ;-). The alternatives to plastic bags (for their appropriate use) are being found not to be very environmental friendly. LCA analyses will include the whole cycle as should be [and possible], and if you don’t know, then don’t be insidious about what you don’t know. Saying that you conclude with a tax because there are people that do not share your view signifies the level and content of your arguments.


  3. South Australia has banned the use of plastic bags under most circumstances. It’s easy and it’s certainly not the end of the world! The legislation will gradually become more stringent and eventually plastic shopping bags will be gone completely. South Australia has also a ban on non-returnable glass and plastic drink bottles. All returnable bottles have a quite generous refundable deposit available to those who collect and return them. There is no very little roadside litter from such sources! We also have large fines for lttering and dumping and well defined and developing waste separation strategies at household level. All these things are easily ‘doable’ with many political dividends if the will is there!

  4. Yesterday night I had the oportunity to say to professor Kenneth Serbin, who made a conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil, that he could invite California’s governor to buy the green platic bag that is made in this city. The bag does come from fossil fuel and is biodegradable.

    I hope that measure could solve the question pose on the plastic bags.

  5. What about just NOT using bags? Oh golly my, what a trippy idea. Mind blowing. What IF we put our Mother before petty convenience and say, used the carts already existing in shopping centers, brought the items out to your (gasoline consuming) car, and just loaded them in, item by item? Then got home, and did the same!?!? Since that won’t happen, especially with all the non-3-by-design families pounding down hundreds of pounds of food a week, living by the “time is money money is time not a second to spare” model, there must be a container-alternative of some sort, to smooth the waves of reactionary verbal violence that would surely arise with this disgusting aforementioned thought experiment.
    Canvas bag… Hemp? What about ahhhhhh hemp that grew in climates needing minimal “nurture”(Most places, thus “weed”), as hemp is extremely quick to grow, 6 months or so, extremely strong (wouldn’t need to buy another anytime soon), and can be done locally? The LCA analysis’ need to be done for sure, for beaurocratic eyes, but surely, the entirety of the environmental cost of one canvas bag every couple of years – lifetime as opposed to THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS of bags consumed by each person must tilt in favor of canvas. A few canvas bags in a lifetime, as opposed to thousands, and thousands, of plastic bags. You don’t need a physical sciences major with a minor in resource management to do the ecological footprint calculating. Super obvious. Now, since most environmentally-conscious, non-self-serving, non-power-craving, non-business-influenced humanitarians in the House and Senate put a churning industry before the thing that manifests humanity itself IE earth, the one and only, encapsulated in space, a ban would be hard to fly in, and we all know how a tax angers those plastic lovers, so I believe it must somehow be tackled from the business sector. So either convincing the plastic-producers that they can somehow profit more from canvas (not a reality), or… tax or ban. Why CANT a ban happen, who PREFERS plastic as opposed to canvas? Nobody, deep down that is. Plastic bags are “free”, and you have to pay for canvas, this is a major psychological reasoning mechanism of many plastic lovers. Cheap cheap cheap that’s all that matters, right? Me me me? The Story of Stuff should be a required read of all high school students, along with a slideshow of Plastic Island, landfills, to show people: Everything you use IS earth. A percentage of it. A percentage of the very thing that makes all these quaint realities we have in America possible. You ARE earth, everything IS earth. How many people in our legislation-shaping arena grasp this simple truth? Plastic bags are just the beginning of the reality of the effects of our behavior in the past 200 years.

  6. Oh, and who ELSE prefers plastic bags? The ones that….profit…from it. The ones we can’t convince to stop production, because, well, WHY WOULDN’T YOU PROFIT IF THE MARKET IS THERE!?!?!?!? COME ON, SIMPLE ECONOMICS, RIGHT!?

  7. Hi Steven, thanks for your in-depth responses. I agree that industries’ interests is a major barrier to any cultural shift that supports sustainability. And the canvas bag industry can’t counteract the billions made by the plastic bag industry, as–like you noted–canvas bags can last a decade or more. But a mix of new enterprise pressure from non-disposable bag manufacturers, grassroots support of bag bans or taxes, and policymakers’ commitment (assuming they haven’t received contributions from plastic bag manufacturers) might be able to counteract this. We’ve definitely gotta get beyond plastic bags and much of the other plastic crud that makes up modern life.

  8. Well im sure u blokes dont shop,
    or do the housework, what do you put your rubbish into,
    Glad love you ,
    because everyone will have to go back to buying rubbish bags to put there rubbish into . the shire will not let u put raw rubbish into your council bins for health reasons
    how much has Glad given to Earthwatch to get everyone off shopping bags , where i shop the use degradable bags made from vegetable environment degradable . so all you bloody rocket scientists should do more home work befor u shoot off at things that affect the environment even more like how long is it going to take to degrade black garbage bags

  9. I take out my own trash and do the grocery shopping. I work for a small nonprofit organization, not Goldman Sachs.
    Glad, of course, paid absolutely nothing to Worldwatch (I’m not sure if they have a relationship with Earthwatch–as that is a separate organization). I want people to stop using all plastic bags, not just free ones. That is not something I imagine that Glad would support.

    And now to answer your question: you wouldn’t need plastic bags if you composted the organic parts of your trash and put only non-recyclable, non-compostable garbage in your bin (and if that’s still against council rules you should talk to your council). Composting is easy if you have a yard. If you’re like me and don’t have a yard, it’ll take more work, like finding a colleague who has a compost bin. If you’re not up to composting, then simply pay the five cent tax for a plastic bag (few places actually ban bags). While far from ideal, at least that’ll provide your town with some of the money it’ll inevitably need to help clean up the plastic garbage slick that gets into sewers, rivers and onto the beaches. Plastic–in its most disposable forms (like packaging)–is a tragic mistake and we must rein it in aggressively to keep the Earth and us healthy.

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